100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

FICTION V. POETRY

The poet W.H. Auden once proclaimed, “Idle curiosity is an ineradicable vice of the human mind.  All of us like to discover the secrets of our neighbors, especially the ugly ones.”

Those dullards who read novels and short stories, but “can’t understand poetry,” are no better than the stereotypical bon-bon eating housewives watching their soaps. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of poetry which cannot be understood, and many poets today intentionally write their poetry so it cannot be understood.  I refer to the dullards who will always choose fiction over poetry, no matter how good the poetry happens to be.  It’s time to point out an unspoken truth: many fiction readers are driven by what W.H. Auden calls “idle curiosity.”

With the greatest forethought and care do I speak this uncomfortable truth:  Fiction generally has little to do with “art,” and far more to do with “idle curiosity.”  Despite the stamp of legitimacy given to “fiction,” as opposed to, let’s say, “daytime drama,” the educated who lavish attention on “works of fiction” are simply satisfying an urge, a vulgar craving for gossip and “ugly secrets of our neighbors” in a safe, socially legitimate way.

Reading “fiction” is assumed to be healthy, virtuous, and intelligent, and, no doubt, these things do apply on a certain level, but what’s the overriding attraction that makes “fiction” more popular than poetry?

Despite the educated, bookish milieu, the denotation “literary,” the studious pose in the lamplight of quiet women with long hair reading  novels, the intricate artwork on the covers, the authoritative blurbs in distinguished address, the thoughtful reviews in the press, fiction is nothing but vulgar gossip by other means.

True, so-called “literary fiction” has a certain anthropological interest: as we learn the gossip of other lives not our own—the 200 page encapsulations of marriage, divorce, adultery, nervous breakdowns, crime, jealousy, betrayal, and lust—with the more observant authors tossing in second and third hand descriptions of other times and places, “learning,” in a random manner, is taking place.  And we all know that reading an educated author will tend to increase our vocabulary, to some extent.  True.

But is anthropology art?

No, the central feature of reading fiction is that “ineradicable vice” which Auden puts his finger on, when, in his introduction, he dismisses the vulgar who only want to read (and study) Shakespeare’s Sonnets for the “dirt.”

Auden glories in a lucky circumstance of purity: “Shakespeare,” Auden says, “is in the singularly fortunate position of being, to all intents and purposes, anonymous.”

The other notable position Auden establishes in his famous introduction to The Sonnets is that he makes a distinction between the poet and the “man of action”:

The political interests of a king’s mistress, for example, may influence his decisions on national policy. Consequently, the historian, in his search for truth, is justified in investigating the private life of a man of action to the degree that such discoveries throw light upon the history of his times which he had a share in shaping, even if the victim would prefer such secrets not to be known.

So the historian’s interest in gossip is justified.  Even so, history is not considered art—so why, then, should mere fiction, where interest in gossip is not justified, be considered art?  The historian takes raw life and puts an order to it, but is still not considered an artist; so why should the fiction writer, who does what the historian does, but on a more trivial level, be considered one?

Auden scolds:

It so happens that we know almost nothing about the historical circumstances under which Shakespeare wrote these sonnets…This has not prevented many very learned gentlemen from displaying their scholarship and ingenuity in conjecture.  Though it seems to me rather silly to spend much time upon conjectures which cannot be proven true or false, that is not my real objection to their efforts. What I really object to is their illusion that, if they were successful, if the identity of the Friend, the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet, etc, could be established beyond doubt, this would in any way illuminate our understanding of the sonnets themselves.

Their illusion seems to me to betray either a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the relation  between art and life or an attempt to rationalize and justify plain vulgar idle curiosity.

According to Auden, it’s a wonderful thing that we don’t know the biography of the poet.  (Likewise, if we knew nothing about a novelist, it would be less evident that the novelist is merely writing an embellished memoir.) In Shakespeare’s case, there is no chance the Bard will be a “victim” of “idle curiosity,” marring the pure enjoyment of the poetry.

But Auden has forgotten something, hasn’t he?  What if Shakespeare presented himself  in his poems? What if Shakespeare’s “biography” were clearly in the poems?

Fiction, of course, is autobiography, with the occasional, added historical research, or embroidered fantasy.  Fiction is voyeurism, thinly disguised.  The movement known as “Realism” has long been touted as a vital “literary” movement, but “Realism” is nothing more than the moment when the Trojan Horse of Letters broke open to an army of gossip-mongers; 19th century “Realism” saw Idle Curiosity conquer literature; True Art was stabbed by crass democracy in the chest (think soap operas) and snobby elitism in the back. (think Henry James).

According to Auden, knowing the gossip of kings, their mistresses, and other “men of action” is useful because of its political and historical context.

But Auden doesn’t finally resolve his own argument.

1. Shakespeare’s sonnets themselves make the biography of their author irrelevant—Auden implies it’s the other way around: By accident of history, we know almost nothing of Shakespeare; hence we can enjoy Shakespeare’s poems purely, without indulging in “idle curiosity.”

2. Auden’s implication is that without historical or scholarly context, which is produced by the “man of action” who “shapes history,” we getgossip for gossip’s sake; we get what is at heart, idle curiosity.  In other words, fiction.   The literary term “fiction” means two things: First, whatever is not true, but secondly, and just as important, whatever we take to be truthful on some other level, to varying degrees.  “Realism” is essentially saying of “fiction:” oh hell, you know what?  This may be fiction, but it’s true!  Auden, because he is a man of high learning, of classical learning, of exquisite sensibility and good sense, puts it very truthfully: if we spy on the intimate dealings of men of action, we are gathering useful knowledge, but if we spy on the intimate dealilngs of our neighbors, we are vulgar and near-criminal; we are indulging a “vice.”  Depending on the context, then, literary fiction’s apparent strength of being ‘otherwise true,’ is, in fact, nothing but the “vice of idle curiosity.”  Shakespeare’s Sonnets, howeverare not the news or gossip of a king, or a “man of action.”  And secondly, they are not a work of “Realism.”   Yet Shakespeare has “shaped the world” far more than Auden’s “men of action,” and Shakespeare’s Sonnets present a far more intimate story than any work of “Realism.”

Can it be possible that the great Auden is blind to the significance of The Sonnets? 

It really makes one wonder, for in taking great pains to dismiss the “idle curiosity” that would read biography into the poems, Auden allows himself this observation:

So far as the date of their composition is concerned, all we know for certain is that the relation between Shakespeare and the Friend lasted at least three years:

‘Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.

Auden here is doing precisley what he chided everyone else for doing.  Auden is certain (!) there is “a Friend” with whom Shakespeare had a “three year relationship,” based on his reading of one line in one of the poems.  This is even more startling, given the fact that Auden writes:

The first thing which is obvious after reading through the one hundred fifty- four sonnets as we have them, is that they are not in any kind of planned sequence.

Auden finds no internal order in the sequence of The Sonnets, even though there is quite a substantial one (we shall talk about this later)—but he does find in The Sonnets a Platonic “vision of eros”—which shows Auden is on the right track.  For Auden, Shakespeare’s unerring ear, his confessional writing (permissible, we assume, because of Shakespeare’s fortunate anonymity), and his “vision of eros” combine to make The Sonnets a far greater work of art than any mere story with a chronological plot.

Auden several times falls into the error he condemns, imagining Shakespeare’s relationship with a “young man” and a “dark-haired woman,” and their behavior with each other, over a “three year” period, even as he explains to us that The Sonnets expresses a Platonic vision of life, not a soap opera one.

Auden fails to pin down the essence of Shakespeare’s famous work, but at least gets things generally right.

But then Auden got it somewhat right—because he was a poet.

Like Hawthorne and Poe, the last great American fiction writers before Realism reared its ugly head, Auden, who died in 1973, burned with a certain integrity as American poetry was dwindling into irrelevance.

And so we end with Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 25, as it refers to Auden’s “man of action.”  Here is a drop of honey from Shakespeare, the golden honey bee, a poem worth ten-thousand Realist novels, at least:

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
  Where I may not remove nor be removed.

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